Carolina Herrera never studied design—but she’s always lived it. At 15, this horse-mad Venezuelan acquired her first couture ensemble, by Lanvin. Some 30 years later, by then a celebrated jet-setting beauty and habitué of the best-dressed lists, Herrera moved to New York City and debuted her first collection. It was a smash. And no wonder: Herrera’s a woman who knows what she likes. No follower of trends, she is unafraid of change, yet consistently maintains her ladylike elegance whether she’s in a trim pantsuit or a voluminous ball gown.
1. In 1980 the Herreras moved from Venezuela to New York, where Carolina (named that year to the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame), considered working with fabrics, but is steered toward dress design instead by “fashion czarina,” Diana Vreeland. “I thought if Diana thought I could do it, I would try,” Herrera later said.
2. Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger sat front row when, in April 1981, at the tony Metropolitan Club, Herrera presented her first full collection to the accompaniment of Cole Porter tunes. It was hailed as “the most glamorous fashion debut in years,” by the UPI; Vreeland called it “a revelation.” WWD famously dubbed Herrera “Our Lady of the Sleeve” after seeing the designer’s first collection of elegant—and pricy—eveningwear. “What I always love,” Herrera would later tell Vogue, “is everything that looks totally different from anything else, which is why I abhor minimalism.”
3. Herrera’s friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe began on Mustique in 1976. The photographer—attired, according to his biographer, in “a leather bikini topped with a denim vest” with “silver and ivory bangles up to his elbows”—was there on assignment to cover Colin Tennant’s Gold-on-Gold birthday party for Interview. While there, he snapped an unforgettable portrait of Herrera in repose. Later he’d do a formal Evita-esque portrait of the designer. A month after Mapplethorpe died, in 1989, Herrera included studded velvet biker jackets in her collection in memory of her Perfecto-wearing friend.
4. Herrera has dressed many famous brides—including Carrie Bradshaw—but her most iconic design is that worn by Caroline Kennedy at her 1986 wedding in Hyannis Port. This clover-strewn gown predates the launch of Herrera’s bridal line (in 1988), and it’s totally unlike the frock she designed for her own (second) marriage, to Reinaldo Herrera, Jr. in 1968—a yellow organza mini with appliqué flowers.
5. It’s encouraging to know that even Herrera, known for her poise and style, has a sartorial “security blanket.” Hers is the crisp white shirt, which can be paired with anything from pants to a ball skirt and recalls the designer’s schoolgirl days. More important than what Herrera pairs her signature piece with is how she wears it. “My rule, whether I’m dressed in something that’s ‘high’ or ‘low,’ ” Herrera told Vogue, “is to wear it like it cost a million dollars.”